Protecting Truck Cargo on Nation's Highways

Crime doesn't pay? Tell that to truck cargo thieves

A few weeks later Peters called to say he'd run into Country again. This time, Country had really gotten himself into trouble: He had tried to steal a tractor-trailer loaded with telephone poles.

It happened like this: Country and two hookers named Peaches and Blue Eyes convinced a trucker to rent a room near the truck stop where they could smoke crack and have sex. When the driver went to check in Country decided to steal the truck.

By chance Peters was near the hotel, towing a truck that had been stolen and stripped. When he saw the stolen rig barreling toward him, he shined his flashlight in the cab to see who was driving. "Country," he muttered. "That dumb-ass." Seconds later, the driver of the truck came running out of the hotel. "My truck's been stolen," he hollered at Peters. So Peters jumped in his squad car and took off after Country, who thought he could lose Peters, but the cop cut him off before Country could get the rig on the highway. Country jumped in the back of the cab and threw one of the hookers he had with him in the front seat. He wasn't driving, he insisted. But Peters knew better. So he threw Country in jail and notified the owner of the load that he had his telephone poles.

In all likelihood Country wouldn't have known what to do with the telephone poles, Peters said. But he would have sold everything else on the truck. There are trucking supply stores up and down Highway 175 especially in Pleasant Grove, that will buy stolen tires, wheels, seats or anything else that can be stripped out of a truck, Peters said.

This is the most common type of cargo theft in Dallas and it happens all the time. Peters regularly comes across trailers abandoned in empty lots. Sometimes they are full of cargo, and sometimes they are empty. He's recovered stolen loads of furniture, lettuce, televisions, tires, cigarettes and electronics.

"You have your levels of crime," Peters said. "At the bottom level you have your crimes of opportunity. That might mean a driver turning over his load to support a drug habit. Say he's got a load of watermelons; he'll go down the road and sell them to every mom-and-pop store along the way. Then you've got the ones where a driver drops his trailer to get something to eat. He'll drop his trailer any place: at a truck stop on the street, on back roads. Drivers are lazy and irresponsible. So [a thief] comes along with his bobtail, hooks up the trailer and takes off."

It's a well-known secret that trucking companies regularly hire drunks drug addicts and ex-cons. In fact, Peters knows drivers-turned-pimps who've gone back to trucking. After a seven-month investigation, The Dallas Morning News reported that the inadequate vetting of drivers was one of the biggest problems facing the trucking industry. By law, trucking companies are required to ask prospective drivers how many times they've been in an accident, the number of traffic tickets they have and their last three years of employment, but they are not required to do a criminal background check.

One night Peters introduced me to a driver-turned-pimp called Ced who we found on a road behind the truck stop. He was working the area with a girl named Kitty Kat, who stood leaning against Ced's convertible as we talked. Kitty Kat was only 36 but already one of her teeth had gone gray.

Girls were just a way to get in the truck Ced said. The goal was to get the driver to the point where he'd spent all his money on crack or whores. "Then he starts selling his tires, selling his freight, selling his gas to other drivers. They sell fridges, whatever they are carrying."

"Anything to support a habit," Peters interjected. "Once it's stripped of its seats of its radio, of everything they'll drop it somewhere and report it stolen."

Like every other big city in America Dallas has a vast underground network for stolen merchandise. Most of it ends up in the places you'd suspect: eBay, flea markets, bazaars, fly-by-night mom-and-pop stores. Peters once recovered a stolen load of toilet paper from an Oak Cliff dollar store that is still in business. In 2003 Dallas police officers discovered that a load of Best Buy appliances stolen by a trucker from a Grand Prairie warehouse was being sold out of a house in Richardson.